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At Meeting, Faculty Discuss Writing Skills

By David D. Hsu
Editor in Chief

A motion that would recognize the need for a communication requirement was introduced at the monthly faculty meeting on Wednesday.

The proposal results from work done by the Committee on the Writing Requirement in examining the Institute's current writing requirement.

The faculty motion, which was proposed by Chair of the Faculty Lawrence S. Bacow '72, will be up for a vote in the faculty meeting on April 16.

The proposal serves two purposes, said Dean for Undergraduate Curriculum Kip V. Hodges PhD '82, chair of the committee.

"First, the faculty admit formally that we have a problem" with the writing requirement, Hodges said. Secondly, such a resolution would show that the faculty recognize that the problem needs to be addressed.

The proposal would not commit the faculty to any specific plan, Hodges said.

However, the resolution would call on the faculty to "direct the Committee on the Undergraduate Program to conduct a series of experiments and pilot programs to inform the final design of a new communication requirement," the proposal said.

Committee identifies problems

Through their work looking at the writing requirement, the Committee on the Writing Requirement found that "writing and speaking are becoming more important in the lives of scientists and engineers," Hodges said.

However, MITis not contributing enough to the improvement of those skills. A random sampling of MITjuniors found that 15 to 20 percent enter MIT with deficient writing abilities, Hodges said. By junior year, 25 to 30 percent have inadequate writing skills despite having passed the Phase I writing requirement, he said.

The committee also found that there was no correlation between writing skills and grade point average, Hodges said. This "emphasizes that the present culture at MITclearly does not reward students working to improve their writing abilities," the committee's report said.

The committee was unable to devise a specific model, Hodges said. Experiments would need to be conducted to determine what works, he said.

The experimental programs would include communication-intensive freshman seminars, Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences subjects, and practica attached to both engineering and science subjects, Hodges said.

After the faculty passes the resolution, a special subcommittee of the Committee on the Undergraduate Program will design and implement these experiments, Hodges said. This initiative has already received $200,000 in funding from the National Science Foundation.

By 1999, CWR and CUP will develop a specific implementation plan, Hodges said. The faculty would vote on the proposal in 2000. The plan would be implemented gradually and become fully effective for the Class of 2000.

"If we are unwilling to do this, it sends a very powerful message," Bacow said. Failing to pass the motion would show that the faculty is satisfied with the status quo, he said.

Faculty question motion

Former Dean for Undergraduate Education and Student Affairs Arthur C. Smith said he was unsure that the Institute and students could commit resources to communication without hurting other aspects of MIT.

"Better communication skills are an amplifier," Bacow said. They will enhance the content of science and engineering subjects.

Professor of Literature David Thorburn said his first response to the proposal was "great applause." However, there were a few problems.

The proposal equates writing and speaking, he said. "The two activities are not identical."

Also, since 15 to 20 percent of students are admitted with deficient writing skills, MITshould either offer remedial writing classes or toughen admission, he said. MIT would never stand for a deficiency in computational skills.

Lastly, Thorburn said that the proposal itself should be well written. He suggested rewording some phrases including changing "receive practice, instruction, and feedback" to "receive instruction" since one cannot "receive practice."

Hodges said that the proposal was written by Bacow, and since Bacow went to MIT, it shows how the writing requirement needs revision.

Bacow admitted that he wrote the proposal, but said it was edited by Dean for Undergraduate Education Rosalind H. Williams, Hodges, Coordinator for the Writing Requirement Leslie C. Perelman, Head of the Writing Program Alan P. Lightman, and Chair of CUP Charles Stewart III, so the responsibility should be distributed.

With respect to toughening admissions standards, Williams said that MIT's verbal SAT scores differ little from those of Ivy Leagues schools. MITneeds to look at improving those skills, she said.

New master's degree proposed

Also at the meeting, Director of the Center for Transportation Studies Yossi Sheffi PhD '77 proposed a masters of engineering degree in logistics. Logistics involves studying how to move goods over time and space. The faculty will vote on the degree at its April meeting.

Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Martin F. Schlecht '77 and Williams updated the faculty on student services re-engineering.

Current accomplishments include an enhanced Online Student Information Services and the Student Services Center, Schlecht said.

The reorganization of the Dean's Office also helped speed up student services re-engineering, Williams said.